I find myself praying many times a day for my colleagues in ministry. I see the widespread devastating (injurious and deadly) impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and it breaks my heart, but what is absolutely tearing at my soul is what it is doing to many of my friends and associates. I am watching vital, dedicated, and deeply spiritual leaders burning out, burning up with exhaustion and anxiety, falling apart, and suffering physical and emotional disability with each passing day; and their is little or no relief. Add to that the unnecessary and unfair criticism many face for trying to take the most safe and compassionate course and I fear for their long-term (and short-term) health and well-being.
I grew up in the Midwest where we were often taught, “when things get hard, do something nice for someone else. It will take your mind off your problems.” Oh, were it only this simple! I am watching clergy women and men go to Herculean lengths to keep doing good for others, and it is wearing them out. I am constantly impressed by the creativity, flexibility, adaptability, and fluency with which many church leaders are navigating each new challenge. But what is being given out so far exceeds what is coming in. “I never really knew what exhaustion was before; I thought I did, but this is different. I go to bed each night dreading the morning,” one of my friends said to me. Another said, “I think I am done. This sounds whiny but everyday this month the thought has gone through my mind, “Oh, God, oh God, why have you forsaken me?” One other said, “nothing I am doing now is right. We wear masks, I lack faith. We don’t wear masks, I don’t care about people. We limit use of the church, I’m a poor leader. We open up, I’m a poor leader. I listen to the experts, I shouldn’t be a pastor. I don’t listen to the experts, I’m not fit to be a pastor. I am really tired of it all.”
I wish I could now offer the answer to this problem and the solution to everyone’s dilemma, but I cannot. Spiritual leadership carries with it such great responsibility and accountability. At the best of times it can feel relentless; at the worst it can feel catastrophic. For this reason, now more than ever, it is essential not to do it alone and to set some boundaries. Many clergy over function to begin with, wishing to save the world or at least some small part of it. Helping occupations attract those who deeply desire to help (profound, huh?), but often leave such people (us?) very vulnerable when trauma ramps up. There is a scene from the film of Jesus Christ Superstar where Jesus is literally inundated by lepers seeking healing – they come from every rock and crevice and swarm the Messiah, who shouts out, “there are too many of them.” I am hearing my colleagues crying out the same way.
So, what do I have to offer? Not much, but a few simple thoughts.
First, stay connected to peers. We need “soul friends” now more than ever, not from those we serve, but from the covenant group we serve with. Make some time to talk to one another; I feel better talking with my colleagues and they say they feel better after talking with me. Simply knowing there is a level of empathy and understanding somehow makes everything a little easier to bear. Not facing the storm alone makes it a little less frightening. Hearing a kind and supportive word is incredibly valuable just now. For lay people reading this blog, please, please, please put a little extra loving on your pastor right now. At the very least, try not to criticize or question; one of the greatest sources of stress for many pastoral leaders at the moment is “am I doing the right thing?” Uncertainty is undermining the confidence of many faithful leaders.
Second, self-care. When it feels like you have the least capacity and control to take care of yourself, that is the indicator that you MUST make some time for yourself. Doing something – anything – that feeds your soul. Don’t beat yourself up for seeking comfort food or a Netflix retreat. Take a walk, a run, a crawl, a swim. Plant something, cook something, paint something. Fix something – there is currently so much broken that we cannot fix, find something small you CAN fix. Read a book for enjoyment and escape. Sleep, but not too much. Turn off your screens at 6:00 p.m. and only answer the phone; let email/text/chat/social media wait until morning. Drink less coffee; drink more tea (no, really, I am writing this to myself. I spoke with a doctor friend who said coffee intake has increased fivefold during the pandemic and that caffeine is putting us that much more on edge. So, also, less soda, more water).
Third, and I am embarrassed to add this – pray. I have asked dozens of my colleagues if they are praying and over half tell me that they are really struggling to pray right now. I have long asked clergy who attend my self-care workshops, “How deep is the well from which you draw?” You cannot give away that which you do not have. If we are not being replenished at the source, we are no good to anyone, including ourselves. And please don’t hear this as an indictment, but a loving prescription. If you struggle to pray, sit in silence. Find a guided meditation. Listen to nature sounds or soothing music. Pay attention to your breathing. Take some control and become intentional and mindful of your body and your state of mind. Oxymoronically, fight with every fiber of your being to be calm. Attend to the tight muscles and tensions throughout your body. Relax. (No, seriously, relax. RIGHT. NOW!)
And, this for me is the essential fourth – laugh. When there is nothing funny to laugh about then recognize and appreciate the absolute absurdity of life. Long ago I realized that I had a significant and serious decision to make about my life: would I choose to see life as a tragedy or a comedy? If tragedy, then everything has end of the world implications. My self-worth, self-esteem, sense of purpose, worldview and opinion must been defended as if my life depends on it. I must make a big deal out of everything in order to be a big deal. Life is a challenge, a relentless test to achieve and succeed. But if life is a comedy, well, why take it too seriously? Why get bent out of shape when things don’t go my way? Why make a big deal out of anything. Comedy is to be enjoyed, and the best comedy is infectious. Those who know me well know which choice I made, but I think you can guess as well. Find the things that make you happiest and make sure you make space for them in your life and leadership through this pandemic. then rinse and repeat – share the joy and the humor with your soul friends and colleagues. Find the humor in your self-care and be sure to enjoy yourself. Don’t enter prayer somber; if you struggle to pray, if you find the silence oppressive, then chuckle, giggle, guffaw, snort, and laugh out loud. It won’t fix a damn thing, but man it feels good.
And, fifth, know that I am praying for you, for what that’s worth. I am worried about you, and I care. I just wish there was more I could do…